There has been a lot to process, unpack, and make sense of — obviously for my entire life, more obviously this past year, and then most obviously these past few weeks, culminating last Tuesday with the news in Atlanta.
It’s hard to make sense of all the hate that exists. It’s even harder to take a deep dive into oneself, and see if and how, I may have participated in allowing that hate to fester in any way.
That’s how I was feeling last summer. With story after story, and video after video, demonstrating how violently and easily the lives of Black Americans were erased, I was horrified. I was guilty of letting my privileged life soften the racism and inequity that was all around me. There has never been true justice, accountability and healing for Black Americans against the abuses and oppression of our nation’s racist systems and institutions. But with our country and the world at a stand still and paralyzed by a pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement finally had the megaphone and a captive audience. It seized upon the moment and forced us all to look, really look, and decide where we stand.
As an Asian American, more specifically, a Korean American, I understood racism to some degree. I had been called names, I had been asked where I was from, I had been “othered.” But I had never feared that my life would be compromised if the police pulled me over. I never feared for my life, walking around my neighborhood at night with a hoodie on. I had never known the incessant, unending trauma of constantly living in fight or flight mode.
The truth of the model minority myth was something I had never fully understood, let alone investigated. For me, being the model minority, as I had been told my whole life, was living up to just that: be the “model” meaning “fall in line, don’t cause problems, and you’ll do just fine.”
My childhood was wrapped up in that myth. My dad worked at the gas station we owned, while my sisters and I lived in Manhattan Beach, wearing designer clothes, driving new cars, being so American. To be clear, being so white.
We had what most would consider a pretty easy life. My parents never forced us to go to Korean school on the weekend, they never forced us to have Korean friends, they never forced much of the Korean culture on us, to their detriment, I think. They wanted us to assimilate. And we did. But behind closed doors, while we lived their American dream, they struggled to truly forget the country they left. They struggled to financially help family that were still in Korea. They struggled as a couple trying to be a couple with 3 kids. They struggled with my dad’s alcoholism and mental health. They struggled to be part of the country they had sacrificed so much for in order to have a “better life.”
When I was in college, my parents ran into some financial difficulties. I didn’t quite understand what was going on at the time, but the truth was all our life, in our house in Manhattan Beach, my parents were living paycheck to paycheck, with no real savings and no retirement. My dad died 3 years ago, in a nursing home, because of a general decline in physical and mental health. I think it had to do with depression, brought on by a burden of shame he bore. When he passed my mom didn’t want to tell some family and didn’t invite her community at church to the funeral because she was so ashamed at the circumstances of my father’s life and her life. My mom lives in a senior apartment that is paid with section 8 funding, and lives off social security and medicaid. I don’t reveal this for sympathy, I tell it because that’s the truth. My parents did what they had to and sacrificed everything. I think that’s nothing to be ashamed about, but unfortunately the myth has convinced them that they failed somehow. They struggled the whole time to look like that fucking myth.
Things began shifting this summer, as I attempted to look deeper. I began to see how growing up, we, as Korean Americans, were being pitted against other minorities, especially Black Americans, in this competition to get ahead and be the best. It didn’t sit well with me that I had grown up and developed a lens that made me view the world in a hierarchy that deemed white people at the top. While I want to say “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” (the biggest give away if anyone says that, by the way) I know I have learned US history from US history books. And those US history books tell a very particular story — one that is racist.
Now as the focus has shifted to the Asian American community, I am once again being forced to take a deeper dive. Why is this rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and anti-Asian sentiment making me so uncomfortable? I’m feeling this way, because it’s all part of the racism I both experienced and perpetuated. And now the megaphone has been handed over to our community and I listen to the voices that have emerged with trembling, anxious, nerves that won’t settle.
I have begun to unravel.
There has been a surge of emotion that is hard to fully articulate. I am aware of how my once idyllic childhood was also me remembering it that way in order to function. I know I’ve pushed down so many childhood memories of being called chink, of being told my face was flat, of being told I should consider getting eyelid surgery, of being made to feel embarrassed about the smell of my mom’s cooking and the food in our refrigerator, of being confused and uncomfortable when older white men would tell me they fought in the Korean War, of feeling so ashamed that we were Asian.
I’m tired to being ashamed.
Last Tuesday night, the news of the shootings in Atlanta broke. And the news that 6 of the 8 victims were Asian women, pinned me down. I’m still processing the emotional tidal wave I’m trying to swim in right now. I listened to The Adjumma Show Podcast and they articulated so many things I wasn’t able to formulate on my own. All of the incidents of crimes against our Asian elders and members of our community have been awful and unforgivable. But the shootings added in the extra layer of sexism and fetishization of Asian women that wasn’t being talked about. And I know that the trembling and nerves were signals my body was giving me, telling me this was my experience, that this was part of my truth.
The 6 Asian women who were victims in the shootings were part of the Asian community that does not fit into the model minority. So as shitty as it was for me to be ascribing to that myth, these women didn’t even have that to try to fit into. They are the part of the Asian American experience that no one wants to talk about, because it doesn’t fit the story we have been told. Instead they are a community of Asian women who have been tossed aside, as objects that can be discarded. I am heartbroken and angry that they were never seen until they were victims of some white guy’s racist, sexualized, sickness. They should have been seen as mothers, friends, spouses, sisters, daughters, humans. They deserve to be remembered and seen.
I am uncomfortable. But I also understand it’s a luxury that Soon C. Park, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong A. Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng no longer have. So now, it is an honor and a privilege to be uncomfortable. And as uncomfortable as it is, I will continue to dive deeper. What a gift they have given me because now I am finding my voice.